The Life and Death of Aharon – Parashat Chukat
When we look at three of the five books of the Torah – Shmot, Vayikra, and Bamidbar – we cannot help but notice that Aharon, Moshe’s brother, seems somewhat concealed. Aharon was the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest. He was in charge of all the work of the Temple and was one of the nation’s leaders. But despite this, he was always in the shadow of his brother Moshe’s huge persona.
Moshe was the nation’s leader, it navigator. Aharon was his assistant. Aharon accompanied Moshe to Pharaoh, spoke in his name because Moshe had difficulty speaking and was “heavy of mouth”. Aharon also hit the Nile because Moshe felt he owed the Nile gratitude and could not hit it. Aharon was the second-in-command, the complement. The only time that Aharon took the leadership upon himself seemed like an utter failure. While Moshe went up to Mount Sinai to learn the Torah in order to bequeath it to am Yisrael, the Torah say: When the people saw that Moshes was late in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron, and they said to him: “Come on! Make us gods that will go before us, because this man Moses, who brought us up from the Egypt we don’t know what has become of him.” (Shmot 32:1)
The rest of the story is known: Aharon tells the nation to bring their family’s gold jewelry in the hopes that it will kill time until Moshe returns. The nation, however, quickly brings the jewelry and when Aharon throws the gold in the fire, a golden calf is formed and the nation declares, “These are your gods, O Israel” (Ibid, 4)
Why did Aharon do this? Why didn’t he put Bnei Yisrael in their place and command them to wait until Moshe returned? It is hard to understand all his exact motives at the time. Our Sages say that Aharon’s nephew, Chur, paid with his life for trying to oppose the nation’s demand for the calf. Even the tone of the verse, “the people gathered against Aharon” insinuates that Aharon was not left much choice.
But we can learn something about Aharon’s leadership. He did not go against the will of the nation, but tried to go with it in order to then lead it to the correct path. Though the Torah states that the making of the calf was mistake and a sin, it is not Criticism about the characteristics demanded of Aharon as a leader. Aharon also did not set his eyes on leadership. When God assigned Moshe the great mission of taking Bnei Yisrael out of Egypt, He said to him, “Is there not Aaron your brother, the Levite”… he is coming forth toward you, and when he sees you, he will rejoice in this heart.” Our Sages praise Aharon’s joyous heart and that he was not jealous of his younger brother’s rise to greatness. Aharon was not a leader all his life, but while standing in Moshe’s shadow all the time, he brought the nation closer to God in his own way.
His entire life leads to this week’s parasha, Parashat Chukat, which tells us about Aharon’s death. Moshe and Aharon sin in a place called “Mei Merida” (Waters of Discontent) and God informs them that as a result of this sin, they will not enter Erotize Yisrael. Later the Torah will tell us in great detail about the death of Moshe prior to the nation entering the Land of Israel. Moshe tried desperately to appeal the decree. As the leader of the nation, he gave a powerful speech guiding the nation on issues of morality, which fills most of the book of Davirm.
And Aharon? Aharon is silent. The story of his death takes up a small section in our parasha, and even there, there is no mention of Aharon saying even one word about it. Aharon takes his last steps the same why he acted when two of his sons died in a horrific tragedy. His reaction then is described as such: “And Aharon was silent” (Vayikra 10:3).
Aharon accepts. The midrash also describes at length Aharon’s calm demeanor before his death. Moshe undresses Aharon and dresses his son Elaza in this clothing. And Aharon dies. Silently. Then the Torah adds a few more words which ae huge and silent, and that symbolize Aharon more than anything, “…and the entire house of Israel wept for Aaron.” Our Sages discerned that after Moshe died, it simply said, “And the sons of Israel wept for Moshe”, and explained that the entire nation wept for Aaron because he pursued peace and promoted peace between friends and between wives and husbands. This was Aharon’s way: peace, integrity, silence.
We are not all cut out to be leaders. We are not all born to be “Moshe Rabeinu” and lead people around us powerfully and courageously. Some of us might take someone more like Aharon as our mentor who, in his innocent and quiet manner, pursued peace and promoted peace in the nation. And that is another great way to serve God.
Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, Rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.